Emerging Technologies

How to build digital public infrastructure: 7 lessons from Estonia

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Estonia has built one of the world's leading e-governments Image: Pixabay

Marten Kaevats
National Digital Adviser, Estonia Government
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  • Estonia has built digital public infrastructure that delivers automated and reusable government services in a human-centric, secure and private way;
  • How Estonia has created these public services can be applied to local and global efforts;
  • From collaborating with other digital nations to how to deal with legacy challenges, here's how Estonia has built and sustained its digital services, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Estonia a big part of life moved into the home. Streets and offices were empty and simple things, previously taken for granted, became obsolete. For the Estonian government's digital team, we had unknowingly been preparing for this situation for the past 27 years. Now, with 99% of services available online, no one has to stand in line and public services are available 24/7.

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While some adjustments had to be made (we had to build new services within days and other services needed much more bandwidth quickly), the foundations of our way of life remained intact and operational. Digital identity and signatures, secure data exchange and an array of services kept Estonia up and running.

Many digitally mature governments, including Estonia, have adopted novel ways of running whole-of-government based approaches that deliver automated and reusable government services in a human-centric, secure and private way. Step-by-step, different governments are making their building blocks open-source, available as global digital public goods, ready for others to use.

Digital public infrastructure is different from physical infrastructure: code can be copy-pasted for free but it also needs to be delivered in the context of robust governance architecture and everyday stewardship. When public sector delivery fails, it is usually due to the governance and its complexity – it’s rarely because of a broken code.

Everyday maintenance, regular updates, patches and routine cyber certification audits are often left out from keynotes and thus neglected by top decision-makers. However, the sustainable delivery of these business processes changes on a regular basis and underpins digital transformation.

Regardless of the scale, whether you are building local systems or connecting them to global ones, there are lessons to be learned from Estonia:

1. Nurture and share your talents

Building a truly digital society is about leading by example and nourishing individual responsibility and personal integrity.

Everybody struggles with getting the right skills in their workforce. A big part in building the digital public infrastructure community is to share some of these skills within a country and across national borders. This would radically cut the cost of everyday maintenance globally.

To solve this problem worldwide, we need to start building simple and understandable forms of global governance architecture that connects more traditional mechanisms to new, fully distributed systems of innovators, developers and others. Building this open, transparent, distributed and accountable community is the main action item for this decade.

2. Don’t invent your own bicycle

Your challenges are not unique; bureaucracy and problems are similar globally. Be humble and ask for help from those that already have solved an issue.

For example, in the case of Estonia’s digital identity scheme, eID, Estonia copied the initial technical part from Finland and the legal part from Germany. Japan took their inspiration from us and, later, Finland copied parts of the secure data exchange from Estonia.


3. From standing to moving, there is only one step

Start small and simple with a strategic approach. This means taking a service with a clear and open-minded owner(s), which can help people, and learn from these small but important experiences.

Estonia and many other countries, more notably in Africa, have initiated their transition by connecting civil, business and land registries. This allows you to connect people, businesses and real estate to enable the automatization of many routine services.

4. If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together

Set the core values and start building a community. This is the most challenging and complex thing around any transformation. It will be your lifeline and joy and a source of headaches and misunderstandings. From it comes a fountain of eternal youth and, ultimately, resilience of a community and environment that’s in constant co-creation.

Group chats and more elaborate co-creation tools have significantly reduced the transaction cost of managing a distributed community. This change has still not been accepted nor understood within more traditional and legacy-bound forms of governance within institutions and organizations.

5. Thou shall not build monoliths!

Let’s get technical: developing software in a monolithic manner (all in one piece) may be easier in the short term, but it’s not going to pay off in the long run. Don’t do it ever again. Instead, build domain-driven, design-based, modular and reusable microservice architecture to automate routines and remove dependencies. This approach will allow you to cut costs and avoid dependencies linked to one specific vendor or legacy technology. Keep the domain's building process in-house.

Dependency by xkcd
Dependency by xkcd Image: xkcd

6. Embrace (but adapt) your legacy systems

Governments, by design, will always be stuck in tradition; this is the very nature of the public sector. This legacy is likely to be a combination of the legal, technical and cultural. It can be mitigated by solid technical architecture and good community practice. In the world of digital public infrastructure, this means adapting technologies that are available and what will work with your own local circumstances.

In a constantly changing environment, these and other adjustments form the basis of what can be called an agile and adaptive government. This is the only resilient strategy for public sector organisations in the long-term.

Throughout the process, keep in mind that digital is not the goal; a change in mindset and culture is the aim. Many governments and large-scale organizations misunderstand digital as a set of trendy gadgets necessary to get either votes or revenue. Navigating the uncharted waters of digitization means going through rough seas and reefs on an everyday basis. When you discover yourself, yet again shovelling water out of your dinghy, try to remember why you set sail in the first place. Think of digital transformation instead as a tool to help us achieve societal change at scale

7. Celebrate and share wins – and failures

Estonia and many other “Digital Nations” are in a positive feedback loop. The routine developments within these societies inspire and motivate the next steps to be taken.

In 2017, Czech cybersecurity researchers found a critical flow in the Estonian eID, that could theoretically render our digital society obsolete. The Estonian Government went public with the news within a week and public and private sector specialists worked together 24/7 for three months to fix it. No harm was done, but being open and transparent about the problem raised trust in these services.

To conclude, even if Estonia was in a way prepared for the pandemic, our systems are constantly evolving and adapting to new realities and situations. With that mindset, it's possible for any other country or government to take the digital lead and be ready to tackle the next big challenges to come.

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Emerging TechnologiesFourth Industrial Revolution
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